Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (3) – memory, tradition & historiography

Memory, tradition, and historiography

This is the third of three posts that look at Kirk, A. (2015). Cognition, Commemoration, and Tradition: Memory and the Historiography of Jesus Research. Early Christianity, 6(3), 285-310. It   follows on from here and begins here.

Kirk’s final section (pp 306-310) addresses the issue of the challenges that the gospel traditions offer to critical historical enquiry. The people responsible for the formation of the tradition were not trying to write history but to sustain culture, and the details that are important to the historian are often least important to the formation of cultural tradition. The formers of cultural tradition are interested in the conceptual and morally signifying elements that can be drawn from what happened, rather than in the detail of the events themselves. These significant elements are distilled from the historical events and making it possible for the tradent communities to maintain their connections with founding events.

I am going to cite extensively from p 309 because I am at a loss as to how to summarise it effectively:

Synoptic communities are not directly remembering the past, but the tradition, which mediates the normative past in symbolic forms into the present. The tradition circulates in visual, oral, and written media, all of which have tractable properties. It can be redacted, reformulated, recontextualized, reconfigured, consolidated, and in the course of unfolding its symbolic potential supply the resources for Christological and moral reflection and for its own elaboration. The autonomy of the tradition entails that past and present come to co-exist in the tradition in ways that are not easily separable.

This, then, affirms from the perspective of neuroscience what others have said using different data: what is found in the Synoptics cannot be viewed as a simple historical account of the Jesus events and it is difficult to know which parts of it are from the time of Jesus and which from the time and place in which each gospel was written. He then says:

The tradition thus gives much scope for the exercise of critical historical judgment. But the indissolubility of the connection between the tradition’s symbolic mediation of the past and its autonomous course of development is what opens up productive lines of historical enquiry on the basis of the materials of the tradition. It accounts for why the Synoptic tradition has in fact proven so responsive to historical analysis.

The point he appears to be making here is that there is historical fact embedded in the Synoptic accounts – they mediate the historical events for the reader. The authors did not simply make up material. He sees this paper as having provided the theoretical basis for a model for the formation and history of the Synoptic tradition,

one that shows how the Wirkungseffekte of Jesus might be traced back into the cognitive formation of memory itself and to the formation of the tradition at the interface of the cognitive processes of memory with cultural media. We have been able to clarify how it is that the tradition mediates historical realities, and yet how it enables, and is itself part of, a complex Wirkungsgeschichte [effective history] that includes the appearance of the Gospel narratives themselves.

Kirk then makes two final points.

The first is that his analysis suggests that the Synoptic Gospels are not garden-variety archival materials – that they are actually ‘symbolically concentrated mediations of the aggregates of events’ (p 310) rather than incomplete records of particular events. This, he suggests, helps to explain the lack of extra early Jesus tradition in the non-canonical material, and supports Gerhardsson’s questioning of the notion that the authors of the canon selected material from a large amount of Jesus-tradition. The notion that the Synoptics are not ordinary archival materials is not new, nor is the idea that they nevertheless contain historical information. His suggestion that they are concentrated aggregates of events rather than selections from a large amount of circulating material is new – at least to me. This builds, I assume, on the fact that tradition replaces individual memories in the memories of the community to which the tradition belongs, so that other material is forgotten unless it is recorded in some way. I am not sure, however, that there is as big a lack as he suggests in the non-canonical material. About half of GosThom is not found in the canon and there is other material in the other apocryphal gospels. While some of this is, to our thinking, clearly fantastic, to the person who is unused to the canon, much of the gospel material is also fantastic, although Christians hold it to be true. Clearly, however, this contention deserves more thought.

Second, he maintains that even though it has been usual to view the question of historicity of the gospel tradition as being a question of its relationship to individual eyewitness recollection, this is not really accurate. The fact that individual memory has an uneven ability to remember episodic details is not really important because it is these details that are filtered out as of minimal relevance for the task of the tradition – ‘to distil out and transmit the normative past.’ Thus, he contends that the historiographical challenges presented by the tradition have little to do with the qualities of eyewitness memory.

I think Kirk’s paper is an important contribution to the field, but I think he has misunderstood its significance. He spends significant time demonstrating that in everyday life, as opposed to forensic situations, a critical part of remembering is determining which of the details of an event are salient and therefore worth remembering. Tradition, he contends, is formed as individual eyewitnesses share their memories and the community determines what is salient for the purposes of understanding its collective moral and social identity. He seems to see this as somehow different to what happens when individuals remember and yet psychologists suggest that individuals rarely remember events in order to reconstruct history, but rather to help them to understand themselves as moral and social beings (see my paper here http://www.revistajesushistorico.ifcs.ufrj.br/arquivos13/2-Redman.pdf for references). Thus, what Kirk describes as he describes the formation of tradition appears to be the same process that individuals go through in remembering the past, just at a group rather than an individual level. It is also the same process that the people working in social memory theory are describing, but using a different theoretical basis. What communities do when they create traditions in which to preserve important memories is the same as individuals do when they create and retrieve individual memories. Yes, they are more stable than individual memories because more people are invested in maintaining their stability, but the process of sifting, sorting and re-sorting is basically the same, because it is using the same basic tool – the human brain. I think that what is actually happening is that we are getting increasing triangulation from various sciences – psychology, neuroscience and sociology – that helps us to understand the nature of the gospel materials and therefore what kinds of conclusions we can reasonably draw from them.

They are not ordinary historical accounts and cannot be treated as though they are, but nor are they simply ahistorical materials designed to convince the reader of the author’s particular theological perspective. That we have increasing scientific evidence of this has important implications for Christians, but does not, I think, invalidate the preceding two millennia of faith.

Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (2) – how tradition emerges

How tradition emerges

This is the second of three posts that look at Kirk, A. (2015). Cognition, Commemoration, and Tradition: Memory and the Historiography of Jesus Research. Early Christianity, 6(3), 285-310, and follows on from here.

Kirk begins his account of the emergence of tradition by looking at ‘schemas’ – the structures containing a set of ‘typical’ elements for particular activities that our memories use to save space by configuring memories in logical (conceptual or sequential) order. ‘Experiences unfold in unpredictable, diffuse ways, rarely schematically, but in memory they will be organized and recalled as such.’ (p 296) Further, memories which are schematically similar will blend together over time to form a generic memory which achieves the smallest possible size for minimal loss of information (p 267). Although each of us has individual schemas for particular kinds of events, many of them are drawn from the schemas and scripts of the culture into which we are socialised. Kirk argues that that ‘cognitive schemas are already a form of tradition’ and that memory makes sense of the present by enabling us to make connections between present experience and the schematic patterns laid down in the past (p 298).

How well something is remembered depends on the strength of neural connections formed, which depend on the conditions when the memory is initially encoded, and then on what happens when it is subsequently recalled. People are more likely to remember material that matters (is salient) to them and to forget that which is not. They are more likely to remember events that arouse their emotions, and to become emotionally aroused again when they remember these events. In particular, events that have moral significance to the person are more likely to be deeply encoded and more frequently remembered and thought about, which further reinforces the patterns in which they are encoded. This, again, is triangulation of findings from psychology and social memory theory.

He then notes the similarities between memories as cognitive artefacts and tradition forms as cultural artefacts – they both have schematic, scripted structures, filtering of details and convergence upon existentially and morally salient element. They are thus ‘economical bearers of judgements, evaluations, and affects’ (p 299) From here, he moves to memory genres and forms.

When people communicate their memories, they do so using the formulaic patterns of the genres in circulation within their cultures, and the way that the memories are communicated consolidates the memories. Kirk illustrates this with Harald Welzer, Sabine Moller, and Karoline Tschuggnal’s Opa war kein Nazi: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis [trans: Grandpa was not a Nazi: National Socialism and Holocaust in family memory] (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 2002), which details the shift in the way family memories are told between the generation that lived through the National Socialist era and their grandchildren as they tell the stories using schemata from their respective ‘ambient cultural fields.’ They show that there has been a shift between generations from the grandparents who simply use the narrative schemas from the Nazi era to tell stories about the soldiers being transported east to Soviet prison camps, and the women in houses trying to hide from Russian soldiers, to grandchildren who distance their grandparents from the regime (Opa war kein Nazi) and even cast them as heroic resisters and helpers of the oppressed. Clearly this tendency for the tradition to ‘romanticise’ events is problematic for the historian and biblical scholar, although Kirk aims to minimise the difficulties by saying that (unlike, the reader must assume, the Jesus events) this study is on memories which could potentially disrupt rather than strengthen the family, so, he suggests the grandchildren view the era as one from which lessons must be learned but which has no bearing on them personally; and that the sample excludes those who are unwilling to talk about their memories, thus biasing it. (pp 299-301)

Kirk next examines how commemorations become traditions (pp 301-303). ‘Community identity is grounded in a shared past; remembering therefore is a high stakes activity: commemoration.‘ (p 301) He describes commemorations as more than just the sum of individual recollections. They form around elements that are important for the moral and social identity of the commemorating community and thus have had individual recollections filtered out. ‘Emergent representations thereby escape the limitations of unreflective, notoriously unstable eyewitness memories with their fragmented, idiosyncratic perspectives’ and thus ‘[c]ommemorative artifacts highlight morally significant elements of a past event at the expense of specific details and thus take on timeless, exemplary qualities.’ (p 302) He states approvingly that they become cultural symbols, virtually decontextualised and stabilized in ‘culturally resonant media forms.’ Again, however, freeing the important elements of a story from their historical context is problematic for the historian and potentially also for the biblical scholar.

From here he moves to the effects of these cultural artifacts back on the cognitive processes (pp 303-305). This section is very dense and provides significant information about the neurobiology of memory, but Kirk appears to be saying that using cognitive-cultural coupling, the brain is able to extend its capacity by using ‘cultural artifacts’ (such as tradition) to store important information. Because of the way that memory works, the memories of individuals are relatively unstable, whereas cognitive-cultural coupling in the form of tradition provides external support which renders salient memories very stable. Tradition, however, displaces or overwrites individual memories, becoming the cognitive basis for individual recollections. Thus, Kirk seems to be saying that once an account of an event becomes part of a tradition, the individual eyewitnesses will no longer actually remember the details of what they saw and experienced – what was salient for them is replaced by what is salient for the community.

My note in the margin of this section says ‘but what about accuracy?’ Tradition is very stable, but it may not necessarily be correct. Opa may not have been a Nazi, but he probably wasn’t the hero that the grandchildren talk about either. This doesn’t matter if the purpose of the communal memory is to extract information about appropriate responses to something like the Nazi regime, but could become quite problematic if someone thinks it would be good to nominate Opa for an award for his bravery.

Finally, before applying his work to the Synoptic tradition, Kirk looks at tradition as an autonomous cognitive system (pp 305-306). His argument here appears to be that when unnecessary detail is stripped so that the tradition can be stabilised and the memory load decreased, the material can be operated on at the higher levels of cognition which are necessary to enable ‘tradent communities’ to apply the information it contains within their shifting historical and social horizons. That is, successive communities are able to apply the concepts and precepts of tradition to the new challenges that arise as the society in which they live changes, thus ensuring the transmission of a cultural identity across generations. This, of course, is an extremely useful thing for people to be able to do with religious tradition because as time goes on it becomes increasingly unlikely that followers of a particular religion will encounter situations that are close to those in which the teachings of their faith emerged. It is not so useful for the historian.

(continued in part 3)

 

Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (1) – memory distortion

Following on from my previous post, I want to look at Alan Kirk’s paper in the same edition of Early Christianity: ‘Cognition, Commemoration, and Tradition: Memory and the Historiography of Jesus Research” (vol 6, pp 280-310). Again, Kirk is not a blogger, but I’ve linked to his university page. The paper is fascinating, but the language is dense and deals at some depth with the psychological and neurobiological literature around cognition and memory, and he also quotes a significant amount of German literature in German – a not unreasonable thing to do in a journal published by a German company and which has German abstracts for all papers, but makes it heavier going.

Kirk begins by reminding us that there is a distinction between memory (what individuals remember about events) and tradition (what is handed down) and traces how tradition develops, with an emphasis on the neurobiological processes involved. He concludes that “We have been able to clarify where the historiographical challenges presented by the tradition lie, but these have little to do with the quality of eyewitness recollection.” (p 310) I think that the account he gives of the process is very useful, that his analysis of the significance of many of the facets of the process is insightful and helpful, but I want to suggest that what he has actually demonstrated is something different. In order to do so, I need to deal with the paper in some detail, so I am dividing my response into 3 posts.

Kirk begins with the concept of memory distortion and suggests that both sides of the historical Jesus debate now take for granted the fact that memory distortion occurs, with the more skeptical emphasising how much it contaminates fact and those who defend the tradition arguing for limitations on its effects. He points out that:

  • Psychological research into memory does not deal with real life situations because it asks participants to remember things that have no significance to them (like word lists) and deliberately tries to manipulate people into misremembering, thus exaggerating memory’s susceptibility to distortion (pp 289-291).
  • Although no two activations of a particular memory are exactly the same because neural activation of particular memories is driven by the immediate social context in which we remember it, most people are able to remember well. Thus, he contends, not all memories are necessarily distortions of events remembered (p 292).
  • Psychological memory distortion studies are mainly done in forensic (legal) situations where incidental details can be critical in determining guilt or innocence, so loss of detail can be critical and is taken as an indicator of the fragility of memory. In most other situations, he argues, what is important is the ability to determine what is worth remembering ie determining the salience of various details, rather than trying to keep track of all the detail. This involves subjective factors and makes remembering and recounting history much more complex than simply remembering a list of words by heart. (p 293-4)
  • ‘[R]emembering a significant past is an inherently relational activity’ which ‘…entails that it is under obligation to ethical norms, to the virtues of integrity, responsibility, and accountability to others’ and thus ‘…cannot be separated from its moral, existential significance for its rememberers’ (pp 294-5, emphasis Kirk’s). This, it seems to me, is a cognitive psychological explanation for Kenneth Bailey’s observation that community members in an oral society act to stop oral tradents from straying too far from what the community sees as the facts.

Thus, Kirk reiterates, but with neurobiological data as evidence, the fact that observers do not remember all the details of events that they have witnessed. This provides triangulation for previous work that looks at eyewitness testimony and human memory from psychological and social memory theory standpoints. His new contribution is in making the case that it is only in situations like that of a court-room that this is necessarily problematic. In other situations, discarding unnecessary information is a useful skill. It thus seems that he is arguing that it depends how one defines ‘accurate’ as to whether what is reproduced from people’s memories can be considered accurate.

It appears that the point he is trying to make (although he does not say this) is that the level of detail provided is not the same as the level of accuracy. For example, if I stop and ask for directions to get to 25 Smith Street, one person may tell me to drive the way I am headed and turn right into Brown Street and then left into Smith Street and number 25 will be in the second block on my left. Another may tell me that I need to keep heading south for two blocks and turn west into Brown Street, which has a McDonalds on the corner, then keep heading west for two blocks and turn south into Smith Street and that I will find number 25, which is a two-storey white house, two blocks down on my left. Both these sets of directions will get me to the same place, so they are arguably both accurate, although the second one is more detailed. Despite the extra detail, I would find it less helpful because I am not at all good at determining compass points when I am driving, so the first one would probably get me to my destination more effectively.

Kirk is, however, more interested in the material that we have available to us – the tradition – than he is in individual memories, and it is to the tradition that he turns next.

(continued in part 2)

 

 

 

 

Is Gospel of Thomas a reaction to faith in Jesus’ miracles?

Recently I attended a workshop led by Emeritus Prof Bill Loader (as far as I know, he doesn’t actually blog, but here’s his website) on sexuality in the Bible. As part of the session on how we use the Bible, he said in passing that there is evidence in the New Testament that Jesus/the early church was uncomfortable with people who believed in Jesus simply because he performed miracles. This caused me to wonder whether the total absence of narrative in GThom might in fact be a reaction to this kind of faith, so I asked Bill for some more detail, which he kindly provided by email. He suggests that the relevant texts (all NRSV) are:

John 2:23 – 25: When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

and

John 3:1-3: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

which indicate a critique of faith based just on miracles, rather than being against miracles themselves. Also

John 4:48 (his comment to the royal official who asked Jesus to heal his sick son): Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”

and

6:14-15 (the end of the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000): When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

and then

Matt 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

which suggests that there is more to faith than miracles and charismatic gifts.

Bill also suggests that Paul is doing the same kind of thing in 1 Cor 12 – 14, ie that he is putting the priority on love rather than the various ‘spiritual gifts’ and that ‘in a sense Mark puts things in perspective – not by denying miracles – but by portraying the way of the cross in contrast to the values of Peter who assumes winning and power matter’. In addition, Bill points to the warnings that believers need to be careful about testing spirits and teachers who claim authority on the basis of their ability to perform miracles. It occurs to me that Jesus’ instruction that people he has healed shouldn’t tell anyone about it (something they invariably ignore) could also be part of this.

Bill argues in his forthcoming book, Jesus in John’s Gospel, (Eerdmans, c. 2016) that John’s gospel contends that a miracle-focussed Christology is inadequate because it does not confess the one who came from above. [I hope it is clear that I am saying ‘Bill says’ to make it clear which bits of this post are his ideas and which are mine, rather than because I think that what he is saying is dubious.]

I wonder, then, whether Thomas’ gospel is also working against the idea that believing in Jesus as a miracle worker is adequate for salvation and does this by removing the distraction of accounts of the miraculous altogether.* John says that in order to see the kingdom, one needs to be born from above (Jn 3:3). Thomas says that finding the interpretation of Jesus’ sayings is necessary in order not to taste death (GThom 1).

Bill wondered whether the absence of miracles might just be a feature of the sayings gospel genre, because Q contains very few accounts of miracles but does contain references to Jesus’ miracles – such, I assume, as

Q 7:22 And [he] answered and said to them, Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk, lepers are made clean and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are given good news. (http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~kloppen/iqpqet.htm)

Of course, we don’t exactly have a huge number of examples of the genre to work on, but I don’t think it is a function of genre for two reasons. First, Q as generally reconstructed contains some accounts of miracles. Not as many as any of the Synoptics, but several. Second, although there is some mention of miracles in GThom, there is very little and it is all, I think, about miracles that Jesus’ followers will be able to do, rather than miracles that Jesus himself has performed, or about miraculous occurrences that will take place in the end times. For example, S4 talks about an old man talking to a 7 day old baby, but this is in the end times. There are also three Synoptic parallels/allusions: S14 says that if the disciples visit places where they are received they will heal the sick; S19 says that if people become his disciples, stones will minister to them; and S106 says that when you make the two one, you will become the sons of man and when you say ‘mountain, move away,‘ it will move away.

Thus it seems to me that GThom is not like Q in this respect, but perhaps having narrative is not an essential part of the genre. Regardless of the genre question, however, Thomas has no interest in miracles, nor, for that matter, in contextualising Jesus’ sayings in any way. And perhaps this is because he wants people to concentrate on Jesus’ teachings and not be distracted by the fact that he was a miracle worker. What do you think?

*A response to this in the Gospel of Thomas email forum has alerted me to the fact that this is poorly worded. I am not necessarily suggesting that the author of GThom removed accounts of miracles from a source text, simply that he felt that including accounts of Jesus’ miracles (and I am sure he was aware that Jesus was a miracle worker) would be a distraction from the ‘main game’ of gaining eternal life.

Who knew whom?

20th Century style . . . Montefiore and Jeremias

As part of my research, I have been looking at the parables of the Reign/Kingdom of God that take the form ‘the kingdom is like a person who…’.  A number of the commentators I have read cite Joachim Jeremias in The Parables of Jesus (translated by S H Hooke. third (revised) ed. SCM Press, 1972, pp 101-102) where he argues that that parables which in Greek begin with ὁμοίος and a noun in the dative case, indicate that there is an underlying Aramaic le in the original and that they should be translated, ‘It is the case with . . . as with . . .’.  This, he argues, shifts the focus of the comparison from the closest object in the sentence to some other part, so for example the kingdom is not actually being compared to a mustard seed, but to the end result of planting one. I have referred to this in several places because the parables that I am looking at in the Synoptics mainly fall into this category.

To my surprise, however,  on going back over some old work I discovered that Hugh Montefiore had said the same thing about the underlying Aramaic le and its effect in “Comparison of the Parables of the Gospel According to Thomas and of the Synoptic Gospels,” (NTS 7(1961): 246-7). Montefiore doesn’t mention the ὁμοίος + dative Greek structure, but clearly they are both talking about the same thing. Although the Montefiore paper is older than the Jeremias book, the Jeremias book is the third English edition, based on the text of the eighth German edition of Die Gliechnisse Jesu, the first edition of which was published in 1947. Thus, Montefiore could have read an earlier version of Jeremias’s book.

Montefiore does not attribute his statement to anyone, but citations can be omitted by accident and in the next section he refers twice to ‘Jeremias, op cit’. At this point I groaned, because this meant trawling back through the footnotes on many pages to find out which of Jeremias’ publications had been cited previously. Montefiore liked Jeremias’ work and cited it a dozen or so times in the paper, but I eventually found that he was referring to the 1957 edition of The Unknown Sayings of Jesus, a translation of the 1951 second edition of Unbekannte Jesusworte. I liberated a copy from my favourite theological library and started reading – or at least skimming – not finding anything. It was quite weird, however, to read an analysis of POxy 1, 654 and 655 written before it was recognised that they were fragments of Thomas (although in an addendum for the English translation he notes that Puech had published a paper in Revue de l’Histoire des Religions in 1955 that indicated that POxy 654 was identical with the opening section of Gospel of Thomas).

It then occurred to me that maybe my assumption that Jeremias had made the original observation and that Montefiore had failed to attribute it correctly might not be right. Maybe Jeremias got the idea from Montefiore. I am not totally sure that this is what happened because of the wording of the footnote on p 101 doesn’t make it clear exactly what Jeremias is referring to, but he certainly cites pp 246 f of Montefiore’s paper at the end of the section where he talks about this feature of the Greek. It would therefore seem that the reason that this is normally attributed to Jeremias is that most people I’ve been reading have been focussing on the Synoptics, so have probably not read Montefiore – and it does seem that Jeremias explains the phenomenon more fully.

The final test would be to get a copy of Jeremias that had been published before 1961 to see if he mentions this feature in it. I’ve just put in a request for the 1954 edition of the English version but I won’t get it until towards the end of the week, since Monday is a public holiday for Easter and it has to come from another campus.

Who would have thought that working out which scholar was basing his work on the other’s would be so tricky in the age of print and enthusiasm for correct referencing?

Gathercole on dating Thomas

Victoria asked in the comments to my previous post what Gathercole’s reasons were for his dating and I thought it would be easier to do this as a new post than to put it in the comments section. He divides the chapter on dating into three sections:

  1. evidence for a terimnus ante quem – in which he includes the papyrological data which suggest that the P Oxy papyri tend to be assigned dates in the third century, especially the early or middle part; and the testimonia from other writers gives similar dates. He thus suggests that roughly 200 CE is a reasonable date for the original mss. He then discounts arguments for an early date that propose that GThom influenced the canonical gospels; that the depiction of James in S12 suggests that James was still alive; that the fact that GThom appears to have been influenced by the Synoptics but not John suggests that it was written after the Synoptics but before John; and Uro’s suggestion that it must be seen as early because it doesn’t evidence a fully developed Gnostic character.
  2. evidence for a terminus a quo – in which he discounts the suggestion that the author knew the Diatessaron (which would give an earliest date of after 175 CE); questions the idea that Ss 68 & 71 denote evidence that it was written before the destruction of the Temple (DeConick), or soon after (Dunderberg) and instead supports the idea that they refer to the Bar Kochba revolt – which suggests post 135 CE. He sees the idea expressed by some that Thomas thought Matthew to have been authoritative also supports a post 100 CE dating.
  3. additional indications – here he agrees with Hedrick that Thomas’ use of the term “the Jews” in S 43 suggests at least the end of the first century as a dating; that his stance on circumcision in S53 fits better in early to middle second century; and that while he hesitates to label the gospel ‘Gnostic’ some of the motifs are clearly influenced by Gnosticism, which would again make it later rather than earlier.

Mark Goodacre  in his Thomas and the Gospels: the case for Thomas’s familiarity with the Synoptics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 20102, pp 169-71) also argues that a dating post Bar Kochba revolt is fairly convincing – they both cite Hans-Martin Schenke in On the Compositional History of the Gospel of Thomas (Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, 1998, p 28).

Quite clearly, given the range of datings suggested by reputable biblical scholars (Gathercole lists 31 in his table, ranging from DeConick’s kernel prior to 50 CE through to Drijvers about 200 CE), the evidence is not at all clear, despite the fact that most are reasonably clear in their opinions. Where one lands depends to a certain extent on how much weight one puts onto particular pieces of evidence and there is a certain amount of personal opinion behind the scholarship, I think. This is not an issue on which my work actually turns, so I am prepared (to use one of Gathercole’s favourite expressions) to ‘remain agnostic’ about it for the moment.

Gathercole: “The Gospel of Thomas”

Gathercole's Recently, I received my copy of Simon Gathercole’s The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014) – something  of a saga since the first copy I ordered got lost in transit and I had to request a refund and order it again! It’s over 700 pages long, the first 188 pages being introductory material, followed by 430 pages of commentary, then an extensive bibliography, an index locorum (aka index of ancient texts cited), an index of modern authors and an index of subjects. This post provides a summary of the introductory material.

Let me get my intemperate rant about the pricing of academic books out of the way before I address the content. Given that the amount I paid for it (AUD282 including postage) would enable someone to be trained as a teacher in a developing country and provide a toilet for a village that doesn’t have one, I would have expected better proof-reading (there are typos and missing citations – some, but not all of which can be tracked down in the bibliography) and editing (when the item ‘below’ doesn’t appear for 13 pages or several chapters, providing a page number would surely be more useful to the reader), better binding, and that all the pages would be cut so that the printers’ marks weren’t visible.  It does, however, have footnotes, rather than endnotes, which is a definite plus!! There is an e-book available, but it appears to cost USD250, which is more than AUD310.

Gathercole has done an enormous amount of work, investigating a huge amount of literature and has, I think, struggled at times to decide how to put it together in ways that make sense and are accessible to the reader. I assume that this is why the ‘appended note’ on Thomas as a ‘rolling corpus’ is slightly longer than the chapter to which it is appended. A helpful feature of each chapter is that the first footnote contains a bibliography of major works on the issue addressed.

Chapter 1 looks at the manuscripts, their datings and various features and chapter 2 compares the Greek and Coptic texts, looking at theories of composition. The third chapter looks at the ancient texts that mention GThom by name, providing the relevant sections in their original languages, followed by a reflection on the content of each. Chapter 4 looks at passages where it seems likely that the content of GThom is being referred to without specifically mentioning GThom. In this chapter, he cites the source material in English translation.

The fifth chapter is a summary of his work in pages 19-125 of The composition of the Gospel of Thomas original language and influences (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) and rehearses his position that there are very strong reasons to conclude both that the Coptic version of GThom is a translation from the Greek and that it was originally written in Greek. Chapter 6 addresses the issue of provenance and, after identifying from the literature Syria (either Edessa or Antioch) and Egypt as possibilities, he concludes that we can’t know and that it probably does not really matter.

He then moves on to dating and authorship in chapter 7. As stated in Composition, Gathercole believes that GThom is a later rather than an earlier work. He dates it somewhere between 135 and 200 CE. His dating thus means that the author was neither an apostle nor a Manichaen, and he notes that the author is unknown. He then provides a reasonably extensive list of proposed dates from the literature in chronological order.

In chapter 8, he bravely addresses the issue of structure, agreeing with most commentators that it is not a particularly carefully ordered text. He lists four attempts to divide Thomas into sections – by Janssens, Tripp, Davies and Nordsieck, all of which he sees as unsustainable. He does not, however, address DeConick’s five speeches proposal. He lists three generally recognised structuring devices – “Jesus said”; an opening section; and links between pairs/clusters of sayings. He lists the sayings in pairs or groups and indicates which of a catchword link, a thematic connection and/or a form in common link them (in a number of cases, he sees more than one of these applying to a group). He questions how many of the catchwords are accidental and indicates that he hopes to avoid the extremes of overcontextualising and ignoring context in his commentary.

The next chapter looks at the genre. Gathercole looks at the variety of genres suggested by various authors and discards as unlikely all but two: gospel; and sentence collection/chreia collection. He makes a point that I had not considered in talking about the gospel genre – that just as John is written so that the reader may believe, so Thomas gives guidance about transcending death (p 140). He concludes that it is a mixed genre and notes that Kelber’s term ‘sayings gospel’ is helpful.

Chapter 10 is probably the longest of the introductory material (although this depends on how you choose to count the pages of ‘appended notes’) and deals with the religious outlook of GThom. It contains a very thorough listing of the various characteristics of the text under a comprehensive range of headings and he reserves his analytical comments until he has laid out all the evidence, all of which is helpful. He argues that GThom sets itself against non-Christian Judaism, the wider Christian movement and various figures of authority. He suggests that GThom ‘may not be completely systematic, but it is reasonably coherent’ (pp 166-167) but resists putting a particular theological label on it. There follows another ‘appended note’ addressing the issue of whether or not GThom is Gnostic, which towards the beginning notes that the answer to the question depends on one’s definition of Gnosticism. He summarises the debate, and suggests not only that it is difficult to categorise GThom as Gnostic given that it does not contain a clear demiurgic account of creation (p 173), but also that using labels such as Mack’s ‘proto-gnostic’ or  Funk’s ‘reflecting an incipient gnosticism’ is questionable and that ‘it is very difficult to align GThom very closely with any particular movement’ (pp 174).

In chapter 11, he looks at GThom and the historical Jesus and contends that GThom is not useful in developing a picture of the historical Jesus. Chapter 12 is the final chapter of the introductory material and describes the plan of the commentary section. It provides for each saying a bibliography, a copy of the Coptic text and, where available, the Greek text, together with translations, followed by textual comment, interpretation and notes.

This book is clearly intended for the scholar rather than the interested lay person. Gathercole quotes material written in Greek, Coptic, Latin, French, German and Italian in their original languages and without translation. English translations of the ancient material are largely available on the internet and the modern language material is short enough so that using an on-line translation service would probably give a reasonable understanding of the gist of each, but following the argument in depth could prove frustrating. He also has a tendency to use uncommon English words and Latin terms quite regularly. It is by far the most detailed commentary on the actual text of GThom available in English, French or German. DeConick’s two volumes combined are the closest in length, but she spends more time on her theory of composition and on overview issues and less on the text itself. Gathercole has, as I said earlier, consulted a massive number of works and this and the detailed attention to the text make it a very useful reference work on GThom. Noticeably absent from his bibliography, however, are the major works on oral transmission, human and communal memory that I think help to understand the transmission issues for early Christian collections of the sayings of Jesus, and which provide the strength of DeConick’s work.

Clearly, any real review of the book would need to include an assessment of the textual commentary. I have not begun to read that part and at this stage have no time to do it in any systematic way. This, then, is more a summary of and reflections on the introductory material. I am sure the book will prove very useful, but I am still not happy about the price.